August 31, 2016

An Old School Polish Bakery Goes Modern in Wicker Park

Alliance Bakery has always been in Wicker Park since its opening in 1923, back when the area was primarily a Polish neighborhood. Located at 1736 W. Division, it has always kept the name Alliance throughout its 90-year existence. Initially selling bread and Polish desserts, the bakery has evolved over the past nine decades, becoming a 21st century sweets spot. When Chef Peter Rios took over in 2007, the bakery's focus shifted to European pastries and decorated cakes. They’re well known for their French macaroons that come in over a dozen different flavors, as well as their “girl desserts,” small, multi-layered mousse-based cakes with common girls' names. These fine items range from key lime tarts to the Anne, an extremely decadent, chocolatey, rich dessert. 

The custom cake designs have absolute range, thanks in part to a team of highly skilled cake decorators. Alliance's team can construct anything from a grand 4 tier wedding cake to cakes that look like phonographs, or even the face of Frankenstein’s monster. “Fake cakes” are always on display in the front window, giving people an impression of what the decorators can do firsthand.

Under Chef Rios’s leadership, Alliance has become a place that is delicious, delightful, and de-lovely. But what drove him to purchase the bakery? Working as executive pastry chef at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Fairmont Hotel sound like solid gigs. Why leave? Chef Rios had wanted to open a shop of his own since the late 1990s. But the real push came from the conclusion that he’d accomplished everything he could while working for other people. He needed to set out on his own. 

He'd known of Alliance for quite some time. Prior to Chef Rios' ownership, the place was trying to be a hip café. He saw great potential in the space. Business was decent, but he knew he could do more with it, and made an offer. His vision for Alliance was born from the feeling that “Chicago never really had a really good place to go [for] scratch, artisan desserts, and more importantly, fine pastries, French pastries, and modern pastries.” 

He wished to change that and has succeeded. At Alliance, elegant pastries that might otherwise only be found at the city’s finest hotels and restaurants can be found and devoured by anyone for a reasonable price in Wicker Park. Residents have fully embraced Chef Rios’ vision during the bakery's nine year tenure in the neighborhood.

For the last 15 years, Chef Rios has lived in Ukrainian Village and has watched the neighborhood change. He notes the demographic, the multi-culturalism, and the steady increase of yuppies. “The people who have moved into the neighborhood the last ten years, they police it well, take care of it well,” he observes.

Wicker Park also offers top notch bars, restaurants, and specialty shops. The Violet Hour and Myopic Books are neighborhood favorites. Violet Hour received a James Beard award for Best Bar in 2015, the culinary equivalent of winning an Oscar. Myopic is a three level wonderland for bibliophiles, home to nearly 70,000 books, and their own poetry and music series.

Personally, Chef Rios enjoys Bangers and Lace for drinks, which is considered a top 100 bar in America by Draft Magazine four years in a row. He also frequents the Anthem, a sports bars that plays Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, and Cubs games and also shows special events like the World Cup. To satisfy taco needs, he enjoys La Pasadita near the Nelson Algren Fountain and Big Star off the Damen Blue Line.

 

In Chicago, our homes extend beyond the walls of our apartments and into the neighborhoods where we live. Through conversations with local business owners, this series explores the institutions that give each neighborhood its unique character with the goal of helping renters find a place that feels like home.​

Ben Kramer is a freelance writer currently living in Chicago. He has written primarily about beer and alcohol for the ChicagoistRedEye, and Newcity. When not writing, he’s either busy being a barista or listening to Marvin Gaye.

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